The Democrats, being still very much the party of Lyndon Baines Johnson, have never enjoyed a great reputation for integrity, but the past few days have been especially hard on them: California Democratic state senator and gun-rights foe Leland Yee was indicted as an illegal arms trafficker operating in partnership with a murder-for-hire operation headed by a Hong Kong gangster known as “Shrimp Boy”; the Democratic mayor of Charlotte, Patrick Cannon, was indicted on public-corruption charges related to local development and transit projects and to his allegedly accepting bribes in connection with a planned feminine-hygiene empire; in New York, a Democratic assemblyman’s office was raided on suspicion of misuses of travel funds; the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid, was caught channeling thousands of dollars in campaign money to his granddaughter, while omitting her surname, which is his surname, from the record.
But, so far as we know, nobody had sex with anybody.
When Republican officials or would-be officials are caught with their pants down — and their numbers have not been insignificant — it is taken as an instance of hypocrisy that undermines the GOP’s platform regarding traditional moral practices and family arrangements. There is something to that, but not as much as our pharisaical friends in the press would have us believe: For one thing, there is a difference between having a moral failing and holding political positions insincerely, an important distinction that rarely if ever enters into these discussions; and, for another thing, it’s not as if Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on a platform of sodomizing the interns and perjuring himself to cover it up.
Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times is fairly typical in his approach to the issue, writing about the case of Representative Scott DesJarlais, a putatively pro-life Republican congressman who urged abortions on both his wife and one of his half-dozen mistresses:
Which is more maddening — the absurd positions that right-wing Republicans take on abortion and other social issues, or the fact that they are so often shown to be complete hypocrites? . . . This happens an awful lot with right-wing Republicans who pound the pulpit of family values. When a right-winger suddenly starts talking about extra-marital sex, for example, I figure it’s about 48 hours before that politician ends up on the front page of a tabloid, outed for having an affair.
As a matter of policy, the fact that Newt Gingrich is halfway toward having had as many wives as Henry VIII does not tell us anything at all about whether marriage should play a central role in our approach to addressing social problems such as poverty and education, both of which are linked in important ways to marriage. The fact that Mr. DesJarlais is a creep of the first order and an unquestionable hypocrite on the issue of abortion does not tell us anything about whether abortion should be restricted or to what degree.
This week’s Democratic scandals, on the other hand, do tell us something about whether that party’s general approach to matters of policy and governance is a good one. There is plenty of hypocrisy, of course — not that you’ll hear much about that aspect of the story in the media, which suffers from hypocrisy hypocrisy — but hypocrisy is a minor part of the story. The more important aspect of these corruption stories touches on the integrity and credibility of political institutions.
Progressives like to talk about what government ought to do; conservatives are inclined to immure that conversation within an architecture of skepticism about what government can do. The paraphrase of Immanuel Kant — ought implies can — is fundamental to the conservative view of government. James Madison famously observed that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But he also understood that men do not become angels once they win elections, become police, or are appointed to positions of power. Our constitutional order strikes an elegant balance between policing the non-angels outside of government and constraining the non-angels within government, setting the ambitions of the three branches against one another and subdividing the legislative branch against itself. The founding generation, being more philosophically sophisticated and biblically literate than our own generation, understood something that often eludes us: Angels are in short supply, but all the devils are here, and our best chance of surviving the avarice and cruelty that exists at least potentially in every human heart is to set our appetites in opposition.
Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity — “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” — is the very modest ambition that conservatives aim for. Limited government is the tool by which government can be made to do good without necessarily being good, or being composed of good men.
The progressive state, on the other hand, is a state infused with moral purpose. If politics is to be a jihad, then the state must be invested with extraordinary power to achieve its moral mission. There is no way to invest the state with extraordinary power without also investing those powers in the men who hold its offices and staff its bureaucracies, which hold ever more nearly absolute power over our property and our lives. (And given that the Obama administration has made a policy of assassinating U.S. citizens without legal process, we might as well call that power “absolute.”) But if those elective offices and regulatory fortresses are to be staffed with men who are corrupt and corruptible, then the progressive vision of the morality-infused state must falter.
And they — we — are all corruptible.
Senator Yee’s adventures in organized crime are astounding, and it is particularly delicious that one of the Second Amendment’s great antagonists has been indicted on charges of running arms. His situation is extraordinary, and it is dramatic, but he is not alone. From lawless presidents to mobbed-up city cops to corrupt school administrators, there are a great many Leland Yees running around, greater and lesser versions of the same phenomenon. The genius of our fusty old Puritan–Quaker national civic culture was that this was expected, and provisions were made to contain it. The corruptibility of the political classes is fenced in by limiting the power of the political classes per se. You cannot expand the scope and scale of government without expanding in parallel the scope and scale of government corruption. And government corruption is as natural as catching cold.
When a conservative suffers from a moral failing, it is taken as an indictment of conservatism itself, even though conservatism in the Anglo–Protestant tradition is founded upon the expectation that moral failing is universal. In that sense, every Scott DesJarlais tells conservatives what we already know: that man is a fallen creature, and that, contra the Obamacare regime, there are no exemptions to be handed out from that condition, no waivers from human nature. The progressive view, on the other hand, is that our politics and our institutions could be channels of moral action and reliably ethical arbiters of such ill-defined standards as “fairness” and “social justice,” if only we put the right people in power.
But there are no right people.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author, most recently, of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.